Britain and France clashed again over a post-Brexit fishing row on Sunday, with London calling on Paris to withdraw its threats and rejecting assertions there had been any agreement to try to cool a heated argument that could ultimately hurt trade.
The two sides painted very different pictures of a one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Rome and there was little sign of the dispute being resolved.
After the more than 30-minute meeting, a French official said the leaders had agreed to try to de-escalate the row, a description rejected by Johnson's spokesman, who called on Paris to move first if Macron did want to ease strained ties.
"It will be for the French to decide whether they want to step away from the threats they've made in recent days about breaching the Brexit agreement. That will be a matter for them," Johnson's spokesman told reporters.
"Of course we would welcome that if they want to de-escalate the threats that they have made."
Relations with France have become increasingly strained since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016. London's recently struck security pact with the United States and Australia did little to build trust with Paris.
Macron has questioned Britain's "credibility", while Britain's Brexit minister, David Frost, angrily called for an explanation of a letter that seemed to suggest France wanted the EU to punish Britain for leaving Brexit.
"The rhetoric emanating from the French government and the French prime minister that the UK should be punished for leaving the EU … that sort of rhetoric is not helpful," the Johnson spokesman said.
His description of the meeting was at odds with that from a French official, who said the goal of the two leaders "was to work towards de-escalation".
"We are giving ourselves the space for de-escalation in the coming hours."
Britain stepped up the war of words with France on Saturday, with Johnson refusing to rule out triggering trade dispute action. Frost sharply criticised a suggestion by Paris that the EU should show that there was "more damage to leaving the EU than to remaining there".
The fishing issue escalated last week when a British scallop dredger was escorted to a French port after French officials said it did not have the correct documentation.
Paris has said it could begin to impose targeted measures from Tuesday, including heightening some checks, if the dispute is not resolved.
The French official said Macron told Johnson he expected mutual respect and the two sides would have "exchanges" over the coming hours to work out ways to de-escalate the situation."We'll see on Nov. 2. We're not there yet. One thing at a time," the official said.